Monday, 26 January 2009

The Slumdog Guide to Republic Day

“We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” Fifty-nine years after B.R. Ambedkar (chairman of the Drafting Committee) spoke these words to introduce the Indian Constitution to the Constituent Assembly, India is celebrating its Republic Day amidst debates about whether Slumdog Millionaire depicts the 'real' India or not.

Ambedkar knew well that political equality in a democracy was not a sufficient condition for human development more broadly. He was right. As democracy has flourished, so has the political participation and political power of once marginalised groups. Yet, inequality continues to hamper not just the development prospects of the country as a whole but of individual citizens.

The problem is that we don't always think of inequality in the same terms. For many, any talk of inequality raises the spectre of communist redistribution. They ask, 'If everyone's incomes are growing, then why worry?' They note that relative to the 1980s, when India first started enjoying a consumption-driven economic boom, incomes have grown faster in the last decade. Despite the current downturn, the past five years have recorded the fastest growth in national income than any other five-year period in post-1947 India. Such achievements must be celebrated and economic reforms must be credited, strengthened and deepened. Redistribution in a slow-growing economy cannot be a panacea.

But inequality has many other faces, and we need to remember only young Jamal's in Slumdog to know what I mean. Let's take his survival. For director Danny Boyle, the greatest threat to young Jamal's life came from religious rioters and eye-gouging slum lords. For real-world Jamals, disease and malnutrition are often bigger threats. The rate at which child mortality fell in India was lower in the 1990s compared to the 1980s, exactly the period when income growth was surging. A rising tide might lift many boats out of poverty, but it is no guarantee that a boat's passengers would get to shore alive. Again, Jamal's childhood sweetheart, Latika, might have been shockingly left behind when the kid brothers escape ('Theek rahegi woh'), but she would have even fewer chances in the real world: girls are 50% more likely to die than boys thanks to inequalities in access to nutrition and healthcare. Further, when the reel-world Jamal jumps into a pit of excrement to secure an autograph, we cringe. But at least he had access to a pit-latrine. Many real-world Jamals don't: in real-world Dharavi there is 1 toilet for every 1440 residents.

But Slumdog's narrative also offers a glimpse of what addressing real inequalities can achieve. This is not a film about making money - in fact, Jamal doesn't become rich until he wins the gameshow. This is a film about opportunities and how Jamal makes the most of each chance he gets. The millions of Indians who have become part of the burgeoning middle class are proud of what their merit has achieved. But they also made good on the 'basic' opportunities of an immunisation, a functioning primary school, clean water, and a flush toilet. The question is whether Jamal's real-world cousins can also have the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Their lot has much to do with structural inequalities, discriminations and prejudices.

Recently, P. Chidambaram, India's home minister and former finance minister, celebrated Slumdog for showcasing the enterprise and innovation in slums like Dharavi. True. But that cannot be an excuse for ignoring other more basic opportunities like a school, a toilet, a vaccine, and a glass of water. After nearly six decades of the Republic of India, let's celebrate all that we've achieved, despite the odds. Let's also celebrate Slumdog not just for the grit of its protagonist, but for what real-world Jamals with real opportunities could really achieve. They too constitute the 'We' in 'We, the People', the first three words of our Constitution.

First signs from Obama on climate change

The Obama administration has signaled intent on climate-related issues within its first week. The New York Times reported this morning that the new President favours allowing states to set their own automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, which are sometimes higher than federal standards. California and thirteen other states in the United States wish to regulate tailpipe emissions, but their request had been rejected by President Bush. Obama's memorandum to the Environmental Protection Agency to review Bush's order opens up the possibility that more states will take the lead. Obama has also ordered the Department of Transportation to issue new nationwide fuel efficiency standards, raising them from the current 27 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

Another idea is that of a 'smart grid', which would use information technology to manage the flow of power through the electricity grid. The objective is to reduce the irregularities associated with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, thereby actually increasing the potential for their use and also cutting transmission losses. Further, 'smart meters' would monitor energy consumption and are expected to reduce household use by 10-15%. The project has the support of Obama's new energy secretary, Nobel laureate Steven Chu.

But Obama is also insisting on action by India and China. While saying that 'America is ready to lead' he also warned that 'we will ensure that nations like China and India are doing their part.'

India has its own complaints, particularly the unwillingness of rich countries to commit more money to help developing countries adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. As India's negotiator, Prodipto Ghosh, put it, 'Obama's announcement of US$15 billion a year - for ten years - is significant but is probably far from enough.'

Here lies the real tension. For rich countries, climate change action means the reduction of emissions globally. For poor countries, the responsibility of causing global warming lies with rich countries who should also bear the burden of financial transfers, technology transfers and accelerated action on adapation. As I've written before, these tensions raise many governance questions. Despite Obama's initial signals, 2009 is not going to be an easy road for climate negotiations.